Heinrich Bunting, Map of Europa Regina, ca. 1581
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Recently I visited every gallery in the main building of the Metropolitan Museum of Art—in a single day. In today's Wall Street Journal, I describe what it was like to see over four hundred galleries, and just what I discovered on this Grand Tour.
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Jaap van Zweden; photo by Marco Borggreve, courtesy IMG Artists
The New York Philharmonic is in the midst of a major facelift—they have already brought in a new Concertmaster and Chairman, and by 2021 they will have a new Music Director and more or less a new concert hall, as well.
Writing in this space last week, my good friend Jay Nordlinger praised the Philharmonic’s announcement that the Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden will become the orchestra’s twenty-sixth music director, beginning in the 2018–19 season. No doubt, Van Zweden is a capable, even an excellent conductor. And under other circumstances he might be the ideal person to lead the orchestra into its next chapter.
Indeed, in one particular respect I think Van Zweden could be a salutary influence on the orchestra. He has largely built his reputation on his work with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, where he took an ensemble that previously attracted modest notice and refined it into one that could compete for national attention. Now, the New York Phil certainly has a reputation to trade on already, but a certain lackadaisical quality has crept into their playing in recent years. Under the right guest conductor, they can be world-beating, but on many nights they sound disinterested or even sloppy. A firm conductor like Van Zweden could help this orchestra earn back its place among America’s “Big Five.” But as Jay and I have discussed, there are some legitimate concerns to be raised over the appointment, and so we feel another viewpoint will only create a richer dialogue.
This is not an ordinary circumstance, by any means. The most obvious challenge facing Van Zweden is that in 2019, after just his first full season at the helm, the orchestra will have to vacate its Lincoln Center home for at least two years while David Geffen Hall undergoes extensive renovations. This may prove an exciting opportunity for the orchestra to reach a wider audience as it tours the outer boroughs in a variety of venues, but let’s not forget that the transition to itinerant minstrel troupe did little to help the late, lamented New York City Opera. Navigating two seasons on the road will require bold planning, and while the burden for that plan will not rest with Van Zweden alone, as the organization’s public face he will bear primary responsibility for its successful execution.
Even more worrying to me is what will become of Alan Gilbert’s most important legacy, the orchestra’s renewed commitment to new music. I’m not the world’s most rabid partisan of contemporary composing; I’m happiest, really, when listening to Beethoven, Brahms, and Schubert. Yet by committing the Philharmonic to promoting the work of the most important composers of the day, Gilbert has carved out a vital niche for an orchestra that desperately needs one in order to hold a place at a crowded table that includes Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera.
Gilbert’s most conspicuous achievement in this regard has been the establishment of the “NY Phil Biennial,” a two-week festival of contemporary works and new commissions held in venues of various sizes across New York city. Writing here at the first Biennial’s conclusion in 2014, I was thrilled to see that the festival had proven more vital than I could have imagined beforehand. At the press conference convened last Wednesday to announce Van Zweden’s appointment, one of the first questions asked was whether he planned to continue the Biennial beyond 2018, the last year that Gilbert will be present to direct it. Van Zweden seemed not to be aware of the festival, turning to Philharmonic President Matthew VanBesien for clarification before giving an evasive response. Perhaps this was just a mishap of communication—but the idea that the Philharmonic and their new leader might have reached their agreement without having discussed such a major initiative is alarming, to say the least.
We certainly needn’t cast a pall over Van Zweden’s tenure just yet: five years on, he may very well have this orchestra sounding more robust than it has in recent memory. And though not as clearly committed to new works as, say, Esa-Pekka Salonen—the conductor seen as an ideal choice for the position by many critics, myself included—Van Zweden is already on the books to conduct next season the New York premiere of a new viola concerto by Julia Adolphe, an immensely talented young American composer. Right now, more than two years away from the beginning of the Van Zweden era, whether this conductor is the man to turn the Philharmonic again into an orchestra of real international significance is anybody’s guess. But if he wants this orchestra to be a true artistic leader, building on the groundwork laid by his predecessor wouldn’t be a bad place to start.
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Paul D’Agostino, Zeit, 2016, Oil and Acrylic on Canvas, 60” x 60”/ Image Courtesy: Life on Mars Gallery
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This week: Proust, Pound, and Paul D’Agostino.
Fiction: “Proust in One Hour,” with Véronique Aubouy, at Albertine (February 3): Are you guilty of perhaps the greatest literary sin of not having read your Proust? If À la recherche du temps perdu sits on your nightstand (as it does on mine), then perhaps all that’s stopping you from cracking the volumes is a little push. There’s certainly no better place to find that push than at Fifth Avenue’s Albertine, the francophone and Francophile bookshop and cultural center. This Wednesday brings an evening with Véronique Aubouy, the author of À la lecture, who will offer her take on the French master in a single hour. NB: the talk is in French, so those with rusty language skills will also have much to gain from attending. —BR
Nonfiction: 1924: The Year That Made Hitler, by Peter Ross Range (Little, Brown, and Company): On December 31 of last year, the seventy-year copyright on Mein Kampf—held by the state of Bavaria—expired, allowing Germany's Institute for Contemporary History to publish their own edition in January. Decades later, the idea to publish the work again in Germany is still deeply controversial (though the demand for the new edition, it is said, exceeded the print run by four times). Hitler started this influential work in 1924—a year that, as Peter Ross Range claims, was pivotal in forming the terrible figure Hitler was to become. In prison following the Beer Hall Putsch, living among the other awful characters that shared his dissatisfactions, Hitler was able to develop his political ideology. The world would soon be forever changed. Look out for some thoughts on the new edition of Mein Kampf by David Pryce-Jones in a forthcoming edition of The New Criterion. —RH
Art: “Paul D'Agostino: Scriptive Formalities,” at Life on Mars Gallery (February 5–March 6; Artist Talk February 13) and Sharon Butler at Theodore: Art (Through February 14): This Friday, the artist, poet, translator, collaborator, and unofficial mascot of Bushwick, Paul D’Agostino, opens his much anticipated solo show at Life on Mars Gallery. Called “Scriptive Formalities,” the exhibition explores D’Agostino’s “shared origins in matters of language, translation, and narrative.” A new series of paintings, “Chromatic Alphabet,” represents an alphabet of colorful shapes, while “Floor Translations” continues his storytelling around anthropomorphic paint splatters found on his studio floor. Meanwhile, down the hall in the gallery building of 56 Bogart, the exhibition of Sharon Butler’s latest paintings remains on view at Theodore: Art through February 14. In her latest show, the proprietor of the art blog Two Coats of Paint, who coined the term “New Casualism,” takes a formal turn with small, lyrical abstractions of tail lights drawn from her studio view overlooking the Manhattan Bridge. —JP
Music: Maria Stuarda, by Donizetti, at the Metropolitan Opera (February 1 and 5): Sondra Radvanovsky’s stirring performance in the title role of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena was one of the highlights of the fall. On Friday the American soprano was even better, taking on the second of Donizetti's three Tudor queens in Maria Stuarda. Battling through a head cold, she gave a riveting performance, combining breathtaking vocal artistry with a fierce portrayal of the doomed Queen of Scots. Radvanovsky’s quest for the triple crown this season is a historic achievement worth witnessing, and audiences have two chances this week to catch her, with Maria Stuarda playing on the Metropolitan Opera stage on Monday and Friday. —ECS
From the archive: The epic of Ezra, by Paul Dean: On the second volume of A. David Moody’s biography of Ezra Pound.
From our latest issue: Confucian confusions, by Eric Ormsby: On the final volume of A. David Moody’s biography of Ezra Pound.
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Jaap van Zweden. Image by Hans van der Woerd, courtesy IMG Artists.
I have heard some people say, “Congrats, Jaap!” They are referring to Jaap van Zweden, who has just been named the next music director of the New York Philharmonic. I’m more inclined to say, “Congrats, Phil.”—you got Jaap. And you chose well.
This decision reaffirms the Philharmonic’s commitment to being a serious orchestra. I don’t know what Jaap van Zweden brings you “politically.” But he is an excellent and potentially great conductor. On purely musical grounds, this is a wonderful choice.
Readers may remember that I jotted a “short list” back in November: a wish-list of mine, composed of five conductors. I wanted one of these five to become the music director of the New York Phil. Jaap was among them.
So, I am personally pleased. But I have been wrong about music directors before. Sometimes pleasantly wrong: I think that a guy is a poor choice, and he turns out to be good or better.
There is not much risk in Jaap, musically. He has been very well educated. He seems to have a thorough knowledge of music and a reverence for composers. This makes his music-making honest—not flaky or overly subjective or fake. He brings an intensity to what he does. An insistence on getting it right.
This can be wearing, to an orchestra.
Does Van Zweden have any faults, as far as I can tell? Well, maybe a certain hardness, from time to time. But that is not the worst of faults, heaven knows. Ask Szell, Reiner, Rodzinski, and lots of others. Including James Levine. (Toscanini, we should save for a separate piece. I am a dissenter on Toscanini, a bit: I admire the great man—and treasure some of his recordings—but the music could be very hard, sometimes.)
Get ready to squint, because I’m going to do some quoting. Some block-quoting. Alternatively, goose up the percentage on your computer, if you know what I mean.
This is from my “New York Chronicle” of a year ago:
I reviewed this conductor a few months ago, too. Again, he had conducted the New York Philharmonic. The program began with Britten, the Sinfonia da Requiem, which
Later on the program came Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
Now to a caution: Van Zweden has the reputation of a martinet: an old-fashioned podium tyrant, or semi-tyrant, in the mold of … well, some of the conductors I mentioned earlier: Szell, Reiner, Rodzinski, Toscanini. If he behaves this way in New York, will the players stand for it? The New York Philharmonic is a notoriously hard group to boss around, or even direct. An insider once told me, “Don’t think of them as an orchestra. Think of them as Local 802.” Chances are, however, that both conductor and orchestra will find a way to make their marriage work. And music will be the beneficiary.
To say it again, the New York Philharmonic has made a wonderful choice, and a bold one. In fact, its boldness is part of its wonderfulness, in my opinion. In an age of unrelenting hype and fashion and political correctness, they have named a real musician, whose values are timeless.
Of course, he does give you an excellent name for a poster or something: “Jaap!” And perhaps New York will be full of Jaapoholics. And the Philharmonic will sound its barbaric Jaap over the roofs of the world.
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( AHR-mah wih-ROOM-kweh)
In the Aeneid, the Roman poet Virgil sang of "arms and a man" (Arma virumque cano). Month in and month out, The New Criterion expounds with great clarity and wit on the art, culture, and political controversies of our times. With postings of reviews, essays, links, recs, and news, Armavirumque seeks to continue this mission in accordance with the timetable of the digital age.
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